Sunday, April 19, 2015

From Stone Age to Space Age: the impact of Woomera on Aboriginal people

In 1946–7, as a joint project between the UK and Australia, the Long Range Weapons Establishment was set up [at Woomera] approximately 450 km north of Adelaide. The area was considered remote and unproductive, a treeless gibber plain with few water sources. Everything had to be constructed from scratch: roads, airstrips, workshops, housing, leisure facilities. Water was piped at great expense to supply the new range (Morton 1989:123–126).

However, not everyone in Australia supported the establishment of a rocket range aimed at developing nuclear missiles. There was widespread consternation at the decision, in the wake of World War II, to enter into a nuclear arms race, and concern about the impact of the rocket range on Aboriginal people (Watt 1947; Duguid 1947). Under the leadership of Dr Charles Duguid, the Presbyterian Church spearheaded a nation-wide protest movement that involved over 50 community groups, trade unions and Aboriginal rights organisations.
Image courtesy of
National Museum of Australia
The protest gathered high profile supporters: Duguid himself, the anthropologist Donald Thomson, Member of Parliament Doris Blackburn, the Aboriginal activist Pastor Doug Nichols, and many others. Debate raged about the place that Aboriginal people held in white Australian society, with views ranging from the familiar expectation that Aboriginal people were on the verge of extinction (e.g. Bates 1938), to calls for greater assimilation - or protection. In response, the Australian government branded the protest leaders as communist dupes and placed them under surveillance.

Advised by Sydney University anthropologist A.P. Elkin, the government took the line that Woomera would, at most, accelerate processes both unavoidable and already evident among the Aboriginal groups of central and southern Australia: ‘‘coming in’’ from the desert to missions, increasing reliance on European food and medicines, and exposure to alcohol, disease and other vices of civilisation. A supposedly independent committee set up to examine the impact of the range on Aboriginal people dismissed the representations of Duguid and Thomson. Disillusioned, Duguid withdrew from spotlight and the first phase of protests at Woomera was effectively over.

The survey and construction of the rocket range infrastructure progressed throughout the late 1940s, and the first missile test took place in 1949. Now movement was restricted within the prohibited area of the range, and Aboriginal people could no longer access many ceremonial sites and resources: they were competing for precious water with the needs of the rocket range. Roads were pushed through, bringing people, equipment, and encounters for which neither group had much preparation. A policy of non-intervention led to fraught interactions where Woomera and other government employees were forbidden to assist Aboriginal groups even when they were in obvious need of food, water, transport or medicine (Morton 1989:83, 87). This situation held until 1967, when Aboriginal people finally became recognised as citizens of Australia. Meanwhile, in Woomera Village, people collected stone artefacts from the desert, and pondered on the contrast between the Stone Age and the Space Age (Gorman 2005a).

These events are not, I have argued, peripheral to the understanding of the Woomera rocket range as a space site. They are an integral aspect of its significance that relates to the colonial processes at work in the growth of space industry (Gorman 2005b; Gorman forthcoming). Nor was the conjunction of space/protest an isolated one in the history of space exploration.

This is an excerpt from Gorman, A.C. 2007 La Terre et l'espace: rockets, prison, protests and heritage in Australia and French Guiana. Archaeologies: the Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 3(2):153-167

Further reading and resources can be found at Collaborating for Indigenous Rights.

Bates, D. 1938. The Passing of the Aborigines. A lifetime Spent Among the Natives of Australia. London: John Murray.
Duguid, C. 1947 The Rocket Range, Aborigines and War. Melbourne: Rocket Range Protest Committee
Gorman, A.C. 2005a. From the Stone Age to the Space Age: Interpreting the Significance of Space Exploration at Woomera. Unpublished Paper Presented at the Symposium Home on the Range: The Cold War, Space Exploration and Heritage at Woomera, South Australia, Flinders University, November 2005
Gorman, A.C. 2005b. The Cultural Landscape of Interplanetary Space. Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85–107.
Morton, P. 1989. Fire Across the Desert. Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Programme, 1946–80. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service
Watt, A. 1947 Rocket Range Threatens Australia. Adelaide: South Australian State Committee, Communist Party of Australia

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